Shows, like people, have life cycles. They are conceived, brought to maturity, run (or don’t run) their course and often either die or simply fade from memory. Like people, some shows deserve a biography.
Eric Grode has given one to Hair, “The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical” that shook up the establishment in the late 1960s, became an institution in the 1970s, seemed to go into hibernation for the balance of the century and then re-emerged as a combination relic and object of intense nostalgia as the baby-boomers entered their golden years.
As befits a colorful pageant that defied convention in its day, this book is a colorful paste up of informative text, bio-snippets, lyrics, commentary and photos. Each element is well done in its own right and compliments the other elements to create something more than the sum of the parts. However, none of the elements are as comprehensive or complete as the topic deserves, or as someone really interested in the subject might want.
Grode’s narrative is well written and filled with aspects of the story of how Hair came to be the amorphous assemblage of iconography that seemed so loose as to almost appear improvised on the spot, while at the same time, tightly controlled enough to be replicated not only eight times a week on Broadway but in dozens of productions around the country and even around the world.
He doesn’t limit himself to the standard chronology of the life cycle of a play. He goes into detail in the fascinating stories of how Jerome Ragni and James Rado developed a hippie-themed musical, how Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre came to develop the piece as the inaugural production in its downtown theater, how Tom O’Horgan came to convert the raw upstart of an off-Broadway eight-week phenomenon into a rule-bending Broadway hit that ran for years and how Michael Butler facilitated it all while propelling his baby beyond the boundaries of a mere New York happening.
Grode leaves the impression that he has just scratched the surface in telling his story. The book is only 154 pages long and half of those pages have none of the narrative, but are filled with colorful pictures, lyrics, cast bio-blurbs and comments from the composer, co-lyricist and other creators of the show on the meaning of individual songs.
There are, of course, all the fundamental facts you would expect of a play’s biography even if they are sketchy, but Grode goes farther and delves into the source of the piece with quick sketches of just who the “hippies” were, what the state of development of the Off-Broadway movement was at the time and the changing nature of the project from its early days through to the most recent revival on Broadway.
He devotes a full chapter to the origination, development and ramifications of the now-famous nude scene that was added at the end of the first act when O’Horgan took that less well-defined and less fully formed Off-Broadway project to the Biltmore Theatre (Yes, there are photos of the nude scene in various iterations).
The brevity of the narrative keeps you from coming away with much of an understanding of who many of the key people really were. Just what was Tom O’Horgan like? Where did Bertrand Castelli come from? Most importantly, however, there is only the sketchiest treatment of the three people who made Hair Hair, Jerome Ragni (whose death in 1991 is mentioned in passing) James Rado (who apparently is still tinkering with the show these forty-some-odd years later) and, most importantly, the fascinating non-hippie who gave hippie-ness a sound, composer Galt MacDermot.
The over 200 photos in this colorful collage run the gamut from the kind of production photos you expect to see in any book about a show, to fascinating time and scene-setting shots of hippies in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, a self-immolating protesting Vietnamese monk, a scowling New York Times critic, Clive Barnes, who the book reports was seen to nod off during the overture on the night he reviewed the Off-Broadway production, and Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall, whose vote in favor of Hair’s right to freedom of expression was phoned in from his sick bed in the 1970 appeal of a Boston effort to censor the production. Most of the photos are given useful captions, although there is one error that is glaring to me as a reviewer who lives in Washington DC – John Kennedy did not deliver his inaugural address from “the balcony of the White House” … he delivered it from the East Front of the United States Capitol.
The lyrics of thirty-two of the songs from Hair are sprinkled throughout the book, each accompanied by a quote or two from MacDermot, Rado or other creators. There are also reprints of some of the documents in the development of the show: pages from scripts, memos between creators and, most fascinating of all, a memo from the show’s lawyer to the cast members of the various companies playing across the country on just how to handle themselves in the not-unlikely event that they are arrested for participation in the show.
There had already been at least four books on the topic – two by cast members from the original Broadway run, Lorrie Davis who was in the original cast and Jonathan Johnson who starred in the show on Broadway before it closed its original run in 1972. Then there is one by Scott Miller, the artistic director of New Line Theatre in St. Louis, who has written many books on major musicals, usually based on his own research into a musical when directing the piece. One is an expanded version of St. John’s University professor Barbara Lee Horn’s doctoral dissertation. Of the four, Horn’s is the most richly researched, but it was published in 1991 before the revival that returned the musical to the limelight.
This latest addition provides a handsome package and a tantalizing taste, but we seem to still be awaiting a thorough treatment.